From Afghanistan to Paralympic gold: Jaco Van Gass’ recovery reaches new heights

Wounded war hero Jaco Van Gass insisted he had no regrets about serving in Afghanistan after overcoming life-changing injuries to become a Paralympic champion in world-record fashion.

With the Taliban takeover of Kabul dominating news headlines, the South Africa-born cyclist serves as a stark reminder of the devastation years of political instability have caused in the country.

Van Gass was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2009 while serving with the Parachute Regiment and lost his left arm at the elbow, as well as suffering a collapsed lung, shrapnel wounds, punctured internal organs, a broken tibia and a fractured knee, requiring 11 operations and intense rehabilitation.

His remarkable recovery reached new heights on Thursday as he won C3 3000m individual pursuit gold in Tokyo on a successful day for Great Britain’s cyclists which also brought silvers for Fin Graham, Jody Cundy and Aileen McGlynn.

While the Taliban’s return to power has prompted commentators across the world to question the wisdom of prolonged western intervention in Afghanistan, Van Gass chose to express sadness for the many casualties rather than wallow in self pity or express anger at the current state of affairs .

“I’ve kept myself a bit out of the media. Yes, it’s sad to see what’s going on,” he said.

“Personally, I’m not disappointed or regret what happened to me in the personal matter.

“I had to go out and do my job. My thoughts go out to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and I think I’ll just leave it there.”

Van Gass broke the longest-standing world record in Para cycling at the Izu Velodrome, shaving more than nine seconds off the time set by Russian Alexey Obydennov in April 2014 by completing qualifying in three minutes 17.593 seconds.

That set up an all-British final with 21-year-old Scotsman Fin Graham who, in crossing the line in 3:19.780, also dipped below Obydennov’s effort only to be swiftly usurped by his team-mate’s superior heat.

Van Gass took the spoils in the final by just over a second, finishing in 3:20.987.

The 35-year-old recovered from the devastating impact of war to trek to the North Pole – an expedition joined by the Duke of Sussex – run multiple marathons and conquer mountains across the globe but hailed this moment as the “best” of an extraordinary life.

“At this very moment in time, it’s right at the top. It’s the best thing,” he said.

“I have done some amazing stuff and they all have their difficulties and today was very tough.

“All the praise to little Fin, he pushed me really hard. I was on my last legs to be very honest. He’s ridden fantastically, a great team-mate.”

Van Gass is accustomed to adversity and his landmark display came after being ordered to change the prosthetic on his left arm.

“Things always happen to me that mean I have to push harder,” he said.

“I had a prosthetic that’s been cleared by the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) back in March. We arrived here and with two days to go, for some reason they didn’t allow me to ride it. It makes quite a big difference.”

Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – Day Two
Great Britain’s Jaco van Gass celebrates his win (Tim Goode/PA)

Earlier, Cundy became the first man to win medals at seven separate Paralympics, as Spain’s Alfonso Cabello Llamas took the C4-5 1000m time trial title from him with a new world record of 1:01.577.

Silver for the 42-year-old, who began as a swimmer, came in a personal best time of 1:01.847 and brought an 11th trip to the podium across the two sports, where he briefly broke coronavirus protocol by hanging gold around his rival’s neck.

“It’s the medal I won in Rio and just to pass on the medal to him, feels like passing on the baton,” said Cundy.

Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – Day Two
There was silver for Jody Cundy (Tim Goode/PA)

“Nobody ever wants to win a silver medal but I didn’t lose the gold, I won the silver medal. I did a personal best and was beaten by the better person.”

Visually impaired rider McGlynn started the medal rush with her pilot Helen Scott by coming second in the women’s B 1000m time trial with a personal best of 1:06.743.

The pair only reunited 12 weeks ago, having previously won a silver and bronze together at London 2012.